Trends in biblical hermeneutics (part 1 of 2)

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, orthodoxy or pure doctrine was the primary concern of the Protestant confessions in both the Lutheran and Reformed churches.

Hans K. LaRondelle, ThD, is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

From the outset, Protestantism was fragmented into different confessions of faith, each having its own center of interest in a special truth. Orthodoxy or pure doctrine was the primary concern of the Protestant confessions in both the Lutheran and Reformed churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this epoch of orthodoxy, the doctrine of Holy Scripture received priority. On the assumption that the Bible was verbally inspired, Scripture was used as a law book to find “proofs for a comprehensive system of doctrine” and to decide controversial issues.1 This trend to Protestant scholasticism shifted the focus away from Christ to a systematic order of revealed doctrines that addressed primarily the human intellect. The living unity of the Word and the Spirit of God was dissolved in the triumph of an arid rationalistic thinking.

In reaction to this dead orthodoxy, two new movements arose with the intention to bring corrective actions: Pietism and liberal theology. Pietism arose in the seventeenth century with the claim to complete the Lutheran Reformation by a second one of a sanctified life. This trend to individualize and internalize the Christian gospel took the form of Puritanism within the Calvinistic or Reformed tradition. Common to these moral renewal movements was the belief in the guidance of the Holy Spirit for a correct understanding of Scripture, the new birth experience, and the practical imitation of Christ as a restoration of the primitive church.2

Under the guidance of two German theology professors, Philipp J. Spener (1635–1705) and August H. Francke (1663–1727), the Pietistic movement began in Germany to reverse the prevailing doctrinalism. Spener and Francke exalted the Bible as the supreme authority over all Lutheran creeds and stressed the need for a grammatical-historical exegesis of Scripture. Characteristic of this new trend was, generally speaking, its individualism that sought to make Christianity a matter for the individual. By incorporating the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ in the believer’s heart, “a pietistic Biblicism set in which was as different from that of the Reformation as grasping is from being grasped.”3

Exceptional was the pastor-professor Johann A. Bengel (1687–1752) in Württemberg, who introduced the idea that the Bible should be considered as the progressive unfolding of the divine plan of redemption that culminates in the second coming of Christ. Viewing the Bible as a self-explanatory whole was Bengel’s basic hermeneutical contribution to the biblicism of Pietism.4

A shift to liberal hermeneutics

The second reaction to the orthodox theology in the eighteenth century was the rise of historical thinking, a trend that became characteristic of the general intellectual development. Historical thinking, as introduced by the Pietist theologian Johann S. Semler (1725–1791) in Halle, Germany, undermined the orthodox doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture by arguing that the Christian dogma of inspiration was based on a philosophical abstraction and therefore could not be part of the Christian faith. Religion was considered more a human feeling than the rational acceptance of a church dogma.

In reaction to the moralistic philosophy of the Enlightenment, as presented by Immanuel Kant, a new approach to the Bible began to develop. This new theology was initiated by Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the most influential theologian of the nineteenth century. Raised in Lutheran Pietism, and highly educated in the cultural sciences, he was dissatisfied not only with the Lutheran dogmas but also the abstract deism of the Enlightenment. He began to create his own synthesis of how one can be a modern thinker and a Christian at the same time. To him the issue became how to maintain intellectual integrity within the Christian faith.5 Thus liberal theology was born as a blending of the piety of the Lutheran Moravians and rational Enlightenment.

The newness of Schleiermacher’s philosophical theology lies in his starting point of authority: the immediate touch of God on the human heart, the religious “feeling of absolute dependence” implying an intuition of the Infinite. This idea was rooted in the popular Romantic philosophy that there is a unity and communion among God, humans, and nature. For him, the central point of religion was not in the human intellect or the moral conscience but in a personal “feeling” of the unity of the soul with God, in an immediate consciousness of being “in relation with God.” This exclusive emphasis on a personal religious experience touched a nerve in his time and culture.6 But it came with a price of compromise with the scientific culture: Schleiermacher made a person’s religious consciousness the central theme of his theology.7 This psychological starting point signified a fundamental shift of authority in Christian theology: a hermeneutical paradigm shift.8

The Bible, particularly its New Testament gospel, was no longer the supreme authority and judge of humans before God, because Schleiermacher considered the Scriptures to be only a description of earlier confessions of faith. Scripture, therefore, cannot provide the basis for a personal faith in Christ.9 Accordingly, Schleiermacher states that “redemption” comes when our natural intuition of God “becomes stimulated and made dominant by the entrance of the living influence of Christ.”10 The concept of “sin” consists merely of human forgetfulness of God.

Schleiermacher’s revision of Christian theology accepts no external authority in Scripture or church creed. His hermeneutic of subjectivism (taking its starting point in the self-consciousness of human beings) no longer asks, “What is God saying in the text?” but, “What says the text about the religious consciousness of ancient Israel or of the early Christians?” This interpretative method changed the hermeneutical key of authority from the biblical truth to that of the subjective religious experience. Bernard Ramm is right: “This is nothing short of a Copernican revolution in theology.”11 How would Protestant theologians react to Schleiermacher’s audacious transformation of theology to a Christian anthropology?

The hermeneutics of Lutheran liberalism

Schleiermacher deeply influenced the theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This counts in particular for two creative German theologians: Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976).

Ritschl developed the priority of the moral reason over the abstract theoretical reason (as in Kant’s philosophy). He argued passionately against all supernatural as well as Pietistic dogmas in order to free theology from its mixture with human philosophies: “Dogmatic preaching . . . contributes nothing to a better understanding of what is involved in Evangelical perfection.”12 In his zeal to de-Hellenize all Christian doctrines, Ritschl robbed the Scriptures from their supernatural character. His hermeneutical a priori was do theology without metaphysics, that is, without the supernatural dimension. God is conceived “as necessary to guarantee our personal morality and our moral fellowship.”13 Prayer is reduced to a state of mind, so that one scholar concludes: “Ritschl denies that in this life any communication between God and the soul can take place, except in the form of what he calls faith.”14

Although Ritschl says nothing of our love to God or to Christ, he advances his own concept of a God as a loving Father in heaven, One who is solely “love,” but without holy justice and wrath against sin. He, then, sets forth this rational postulate as the ultimate norm for his Scripture interpretation.15 To him “sin” is nothing but ignorance and a lack of trust in God. Forgiveness is God’s overlooking human ignorance and lifting the consciousness of guilt. No atonement, in the classical Protestant sense, is therefore needed, no penal substitutionary death of Christ. Atonement is only the subjective change of heart about God. The “wrath” of God in Scripture is a fiction of the mind, “only” a metaphor.

Ritschl’s concept of biblical revelation is thus determined by his ethical rationalism. He does not start with biblical exegesis but with his own postulation of God’s nature, with his own philosophical definition of Christ as the archetype of man in his normal relation to God in His kingdom.16 Thus he united Kant’s moral imperative and Schleiermacher’s kingdom concept in an astounding originality.17 Ritchl’s theology became the dominant theology in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Bultmann continues Ritschl’s antisupernatural assumptions in his existentialist exegesis. He starts from a frankly acknowledged philosophical preunderstanding of Scripture, namely, “the right way to ask the right questions” to possibly understand “human existence.” He explains, “Existentialist philosophy . . . makes personal existence my own responsibility, and by doing so it helps to make me open to the word of the Bible.”18 Bultmann argues that humans are in need of a Savior and that each one must make a personal decision to receive salvation through Jesus Christ. To this end he wants to eliminate all false securities in which the Christian has come to trust. By means of the historical-critical method of analyzing Scripture, his interest is focused on the inner experience with the Holy God; thus creating a new form of Pietism.

His pastoral concern is, the kerugma (“proclamation”) must become the encounter with the speaking God. In other words, not the historical Jesus of past history but the presently proclaimed Christ is Lord and foundation of the Christian faith. In his view, the New Testament describes Christ in terms of a “mythological” worldview (the prescientific concept of the world as being structured in three stories: heaven, earth, and underworld). This cosmology has become antiquated in our modern age of science. Now we need a scientific method of hermeneutics to arrive at an understanding of personal, “authentic existence” today.

“Myth” is the view that outside powers interfere with the natural cause-and-effect sequence. This requires the sacrifice of the modern intellect. Bultmann includes in his definition of “myth” all miracles, prophecy, even the substitutionary death of Christ and the literal resurrection of the body of Jesus. Nevertheless, he does not want to eliminate the mythological language of the New Testament but to reinterpret it, while retaining the religious intention of the myth. He interprets Jesus’ message of the nearness of the kingdom of God as meaning that “the hour of decision is of limited duration” and that “God summons men to definite decision . . . not the belief that the end of the world is just ahead.”19 This demythologizing program informs his hermeneutical method, called the existentialistic interpretation. Bultmann wants to prevent the equation of the gospel message with the prevalent worldview of Gnosticism. The gospel in the four Gospels must be liberated from its cultural package, particularly from its Greek philosophy of the human soul.20 That is the program of Bultmann’s kerugma theology. He explains his motivation to remain a faithful Lutheran: “Indeed, demythologizing is a task parallel to that performed by Paul and Luther in their doctrine of justification by faith alone without the works of law.”21

The neo-Reformed hermeneutic of Karl Barth

Within the Reformed tradition, the strongest protest against liberal Protestantism came from the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). He tried to offer an alternative to the nineteenth century mixture of philosophy and theology: a new foundation and orientation of Christian theology, a new “evangelical theology.” To him the Christian gospel is not a philosophical system. He warns against turning Christian faith into philosophical knowledge, or gnosis, as he detected it in Bultmann, Tillich, and others. To him systems do not save, only the gospel saves. On the other hand, he warns against becoming a fideist by renouncing all reason or logic. He defends a “Christening” of the human reason, in the sense of Anselm’s: “I believe in order to understand.”22

Barth’s sole passion was the interpretation of Scripture, the proclamation of the Word of God, because the Word is “something spoken and heard prior to all interpretation”: “The Word of God is the Word that God spoke, speaks, and will speak in the midst of all men.”23 He moved away from the modern, anthropological starting point with its pious “feeling,” to a theology of God Himself, “the God of the Gospel.” Barth explains, “This is the God who reveals himself in the Gospel, who himself speaks to men and acts among and upon them. . . .

Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!”24 He describes this as “theo-anthropology,” in which the highest point in the whole history of revelation is the Incarnation: “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The unifying theme of the Christological principle gave to Barth’s theology a unity of procedure. He restored the Old Testament as part of the whole Word of God, because God spoke and acted in Israel’s history. Christ realized the fulfillment and accomplishment of the reconciliation of Israel. In their succession and unity, the histories of Israel and of Jesus Christ “form the whole Logos or Word of God.”25 Barth has been called by Küng “the principal initiator of a postmodern paradigm of theology,”26 and by Ramm “the best paradigm we have for theology in our times.”27

Barth’s monumental (but incompleted) Church Dogmatics (in English translation, 13 vols., 1936–1969) concentrates on Jesus Christ as the decisive criterion for speaking about God and human beings. His special emphasis on a Christocentric and redemptive theology opened up unforeseen perspectives in his quest for truth, even to himself. An example of Barth’s Christocentrism is his doctrine of the “Election of God.” He chooses as his hermeneutical guideline: “Jesus Christ . . . is both the electing God and elected man in one.”28 In the freedom of divine love, God establishes a covenant relationship with the pre-existent Christ that results in the creation of all things including humankind. Thus God constitutes Himself as the “Lord of the covenant,” who elects the human race as the “secondary partner of the covenant.” This “divine election of grace is the sum of the Gospel. It is the content of the good news which is Jesus Christ,” and “the concept election means that grace is truly grace.”29 Characteristic of his Christ-centered starting point is Barth’s treatise “Gospel and Law” (1935), in which he argues that the word of God’s grace was conceived prior to His law (appealing to Gal. 3:17).30

It was Barth’s masterstroke to create a viable alternative to the double predestination of Augustine and Calvin: God decreed that in Jesus Christ humankind was elected for salvation and predestined to life eternal, and that He chose Himself to be rejected and to perish: “its twofold content is that God wills to lose in order that man may gain. There is a sure and certain salvation for man, and a sure and certain risk for God.”31

What seems to come short, however, in Barth’s Christocentric hermeneutic is attention to the proper weight of human’s faith or unbelief. All that a human needs is to know that he is already saved by God; the human needs to be delivered only from their wrong concepts of God and of oneself. Barth seems not to be concerned with humans’ struggle against sin as Luther was. Alister E. McGrath concludes, “The lack of interest in man’s bondage to sin, so characteristic of the liberal school and nineteenth-century theology in general, thus passed into the dialectical theology of the twentieth century.”32 Others have pointed out that Barth’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God’s grace has led him to a “holy optimism” that altered the Christian message of salvation and the church’s mission. Donald G. Bloesch judges that “Barth’s stress on the finished work of salvation is perhaps a needed corrective to the view rampant in American folk religion that salvation is primarily and essentially an experience of the power of God in the here and now.”33

The question rises, Do the two conflicting orientations—the subjectivism of Schleiermacher and the objectivism of Barth—present a true alternative or a false dilemma? How did evangelical Protestantism respond? We must consider next the hermeneutics of present-day Evangelicalism.

1. For a historical summary, see B. Lohse, A Short History of
Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), chap. 8.

2. Standard setting was Philipp J. Spener’s Pia Desideria (“Pious
Longings,” 1676; German ed. by K. Aland in 1964 (Berlin: Verlag
W. de Gruyter). See D. Brown, Understanding Pietism (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).

3. See Karl Barth’s profound analysis of Pietism in his Protestant
Theology in the Nineteenth Century, new ed. (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 2002), 100–110; quote from 101.

4. See L.E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Father vol. 2
(Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1948), 709–13.

5. Schleiermacher formulated his dilemma as, “Shall the knot of
history be thus loosed: Christianity with barbarism and learning
with unbelief?” (quoted in K. Barth, Protestant Theology in the
Nineteenth Century, 426).

6. Schleiermacher’s first essay in 1799 was an apologetic appeal:
On Religion: Speeches to the Cultured Despisers of Religion.
A good introduction with selected texts is now available in
Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology, Keith
Clemens, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).

7. See Barth, 458.

8. H. Küng calls Schleiermacher the personification of a
“theological paradigm shift from the Reformation to modernity”
(Great Christian Thinkers [New York: Continuum, 1996], 161, 184).

9. Schleiermacher redefined Christian theology in his epochmaking
book Glaubenslehre of 1821–22; in ET: The Christian
Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), section 128.

10. Schleiermacher, ibid., section 106, 1.

11. B. Ramm, The Evangelical Heritage (Waco, TX: Word Books,
1973), 76.

12 Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and
Reconciliation (Clifton, NJ: Reformed Book Publ., ET 1966),

13. Ibid., 3:280.

14. R. Newton Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 391.

15. Ibid., 3:374: “Divine Holiness in its OT sense, is for various reasons
not valid in Christianity, while its use in the NT is obscure.”

16. For a scholarly analysis, see James Orr, The Ritschlian Theology
and the Evangelical Faith, 2nd ed. (New York: Thomas Whitaker,

17. For a penetrating, positive evaluation, see R. Newton Flew,
chap. 21, “Ritschl.”

18. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York:
Scribner, 1958), 54, 56.

19. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Scribner,
1951, 1955), 1:21, 22.

20. G. E. Ladd, in his book The Pattern of NT Truth (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1968), 102, refers to “one of the finest studies of Paul’s
view of man” in Bultmann’s Theology of the NT, 1:190–227.

21. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, 84.

22. Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum (Richmond: John
Knox Press, 1931).

23. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, ET 1963), 17, 18.

24. Ibid., 6, 12.

25. Ibid., 24.

26. H. Küng, Great Christian Thinkers, 199.

27. B. Ramm, After Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper & Row,
1983), 48; see chap. 10, “The Christological Scriptures.”

28. Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957),
part 2, 3 (§32).

29. Ibid., 2: 2, 10.

30. Barth, Evangelium und Gesetz (München: Kaiser, 1961).

31. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3: 2, 162, 163, 166, 167.

32. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, A History of the Christian Doctrine of
Justification, pt. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1986), 177.

33. D. G. Bloesch, Jesus Is Victor! Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1976) 132, 135. For an exposition and
balanced evaluation of K. Barth, see G. W. Bromiley, “Karl
Barth,” in Ph. E. Hughes, ed., Creative Minds in Contemporary
Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), chap. 2.

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Hans K. LaRondelle, ThD, is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

September 2010

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